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Leslie Hore-Belisha file photo [22874]

Leslie Hore-Belisha

Given NameLeslie
Born7 Sep 1893
Died16 Feb 1957
CountryUnited Kingdom


ww2dbaseLeslie Hore-Belisha, born of Jewish parentage in Devonport in southern England, United Kingdom, was educated at Clifton College and later studied in Paris and Heidelberg before attending Oxford University. During the First World War, he served in France and Salonika and finished the war with the rank of Major. Thereafter he returned to Oxford and in 1923 qualified as a Barrister. In the 1923 General Election he won the Devonport constituency seat for the Liberal Party, and soon became known in Parliament as a flamboyant and brilliant orater. In Parliament he showed considerable intelligence and drive, although his intense energy tended to occasionally alienate traditionalist elements within the Government who resented his status as an "outsider".

ww2dbaseAfter appointments as a junior Minister at the Board of Trade and then Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Hore-Belisha became the Secretary of State for Transport in 1934, in which role his concern over the rising numbers of road casualties led, not without some opposition, to the introduction of a national driving test, a speed limit of 30 mph in built-up areas, and the pedestrian crossings with their distinctive Belisha beacons to indicate their position on the road.

ww2dbaseIn 1937 he was controversially appointed by Neville Chamberlain to the post of Secretary of State for War, suceeding the popular Alfred Duff Cooper who later resigned from the government over Chamberlain's policy of appeasement. He came into office determined to bring the Army up to date and in a short time his efforts produced results. He increased pay and unblocked the officers' promotion blockage by laying down that a subaltern would automatically be promoted to Captain after eight years service (15 was the average until then) and to Major after a further nine years. The result was that in August 1938 more than a quarter of the Subalterns and Captains found themselves promoted. He finally did away with half-pay and built a number of new barracks to replace some of the old Victorian and First World War structures in which the Army at home lived. Many of these new barracks remain in use today. He raised Army cooking standards and also introduced a uniform, battle dress, based on the ski suit, which the British Army would wear throughout the war and into the mid 1960s.

ww2dbaseMore importantly, he tackled the problem of organising the Army to fight the European war that seemed increasingly likely. He dismissed Sir Hugh Elles, who seemed to be unable to make up his mind what the army needed, or of pressing hard enough for any tanks at all, from the ancient post of Masters-General of the Ordnance at the end of 1937. He seriously considered promoting Colonel Martel to fill the vacancy before arriving at the decision to merely promote him to Brigadier, whilst simultaneously completely abolishing the MGO and transfering its functions to the new Director-General of Munitions Production, Rear-Admiral Sir Harold Brown.

ww2dbaseA more unpopular decision with the military hierarchy was to employ his friend, Basil Liddell Hart, still working as a journalist, as his unoffical adviser, especially once it became known that Liddell Hart was advising on senior officers' appointments. It was this that caused the cartoonist David Low to introduce his famous character, Colonel Blimp, the epitome of military conservatism, Liddell Hart had written a book which became Hore-Belisha's Mein Kampf, in which he proposed that in the next war England would fight on sea and in the air but there would be no expeditionary force sent in France. Such a suggestion by someone with close links to the British War Office was bound to induce a very serious crisis with the French government.

ww2dbaseConvinced that war was looming, Hore-Belisha sought permission to introduce conscription during 1938 but was rebuffed by Chamberlain, who would not agree to increased defence spending. However, in early 1939 he was finally allowed to begin its introduction. Liddell Hart had come to believe that in a major war it would be fatal to send a large expeditionary force made up merely of conventional infantry divisions, since they would have little effect on offensive operations. He suggested that it would be better to restrict an expeditionary force to two armoured divisions, which would pack much more punch. Hore-Belisha was very impressed with this argument, as were other Ministers, who wanted to avoid any possibility of a mass Army being sent to France and suffering the same losses as 20 years before. On Liddell Hart's recommendation the two mobile divisions which had been agreed three years previously were now set up, one in Egypt and one in England. The Division in Egypt was initially commanded by Percy Hobart, but his unconventional outlook, although it inspired those under him as it had in the 1st Tank Brigade, did not combine easily with the High Command in Egypt, and he was soon replaced. Nonetheless Hobart had laid the foundations of what would become one of the most famous wartime formations, the 7th Armoured Division, the Desert Rats. The creation of the Mobile Division in England went more slowly. Much of the problem lay in the extreme shortage of tanks, and the fact that funds had been diverted into setting up Anti-Aircraft Command, which encompassded five Territorial divisions. One positive step, however, which reflected the increasing mechanisation of the cavalry, was the formation of the Royal Armoured Corps, comprising the cavalry, less the Household Cavalry, and the Royal Tank Corps which was now renamed as the Royal Tank Regiment.

ww2dbaseAs time wore on and war seemed ever more imminent, staff talks were begun with the French, who were understandably not impressed with the British offer of providing just two armoured divisions, as the Mobile Divisions were redesignated, especially since neither was yet complete or trained. The opinion of the Government gradually changed and finally, in February 1939, it was agreed that four Regular infantry divisions and the UK-based armoured division should be equipped for the Continent, as would four Territorial divisions. At the end of March Hore-Belisha suddenly announced that the size of the Territorial Army was to be doubled. A few weeks later a form of conscription was introduced, all 20-year-olds being called up for six months service with the Regular Army, and then to go on to serve a further three and a half years in the newly created Territorial divisions. They were given the name of "Militiamen", thus reintroducing this ancient form of military service. At the same time military guarantees were given to Poland, Rumania and Greece. War was now inevitable and the Chiefs of Staff were horrified at the timing of these commitments. The Army had been caught at the beginning of a major reorganisation for which there had been no chance of carrying out any pre-planning. Twenty years of virtual neglect were coming home to roost.

ww2dbaseDuring 1939-40, the worst winter on recent record, the BEF under the command of Hore-Belisha's protégé, Lord Gort VC, a man of immense personal courage and patriotism, prepared defensive positions in France on a line they were never meant to defend. If the Germans attacked it was certain that the the thrust would come through Belgium. The plan was to move forward to engage them there, well clear of French soil and the French industries in Flanders. Uselessly the British Army heartily dug trenches and built strongpoints and laid wire entanglements along a line it was to abandon as soon as the first shots were fired. Three of the new territorial divisions were put to work to build a railhead of 1916 propotions near Rouen - a task that seriously interrupted any continuation of the limited amount of Military training they had been able to achieve since their creation.

ww2dbaseThis work had no effect on the enemy, but caused a prominent casualty in London. Hore-Belisha visited the "front" in November 1939. He was keen to push on with the construction of concrete machine-gun nests, known as pill-boxes. He expressed concern that there were not enough of them. The main reasons for the deficiency were that the frost broke up the concrete as soon as it was laid, and local contractors cheated on the supply of gravel. Hore-Belisha's words were misinterpreted as a criticism of Lord Gort and his army for slackness. The soldiers retorted that they were building large numbers of pill-boxes very fast, and the absurd wrangle ended with pressure mounting on Chamberlain to remove Hore-Belisha from the Cabinet at the earliest opportunity. The French meanwhile were seen, in their sector, to be doing as little as they decently could to fortify the line; concentrating mainly on trying to keep warm and comfortable. British officers complained bitterly of being made to eat vast meals at lunchtime when visiting their allies.

ww2dbaseIn January 1940, the government caved-in to popular opinion and Hore-Belisha was dismissed from the War Office. His impulsiveness, showmanship and Jewish background, had not endeared him to either to the military hierarchy nor to the Conservative Party in government. Prime Minister Chamberlain initially considered appointing him to the post of Minister of Information - he had a talent for publicity - but, after objections from the Foreign Office (who thought that because he was Jewish the Germans might sneer), offered him the post of President of the Board of Trade instead (which Hore-Belisha declined). The newspapers were rightly enraged).

ww2dbaseThe former Minister attempted to rebuild his political career under Winston Churchill but his wounded intransigence blocked any hope of a return to a Cabinet post. He resigned from the Liberal Nationals in 1942, sitting as a National Independent MP, and was briefly appointed Minister for National Insurance in Churchill's caretaker governmemt of 1945. However, in the 1945 General Election, he was defeated by the Labour candidate, Michael Foot, after which he joined the Conservative Party and, in 1947, was elected to Westminster City Council. He fought unsuccessfully in both the 1950 and 1954 elections, and was eventually raised to the peerage as Baron Hore-Belisha, of Devonport. In February 1957, whilst leading a parliamentary delegation to France, he collapsed and died from a cerebral haemorrhage while making a speech at Rheims town hall.

Charles Messenger, History of the British Army (Bison Books, 1986)
Nicholas Harman, Dunkirk - The Necessary Myth (Coronet Books, 1981)
A. J. Smithers, Rude Mechanicals (Grafton Books, 1989)
Andrew Marr, The Making of Modern Britain (Macmillan, 2009)

Last Major Revision: Feb 2015

Leslie Hore-Belisha Timeline

7 Sep 1893 Leslie Hore-Belisha was born in Devonport in southern England, United Kingdom.
28 Jun 1938 British Secretary of State for War, Leslie Hore-Belisha, announced in the House of Commons that the two existing Territorial Army anti-aircraft Divisions would be expanded to five, raising their strength from 43,000 to 100,000. These five divisions would be under a Corps Commander with the rank of Lieutenant-General and, at the War Office, there would be another Lieutenant-General with the title of "Deputy Chief of the Imperial General Staff for Anti-Aircraft and Coast Defence". The latter would be responsible for co-ordinating all aspects of organisation and equipment, whilst the former would be responsible for training and the acquisition and siting of guns and searchlight equipment.
16 Feb 1957 Leslie Hore-Belisha, whilst leading a parliamentary delegation, collapsed and died from a cerebral haemorrhage while making a speech at Rheims town hall in France.

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"An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last."

Winston Churchill